An unanswered telephone call
To leave one’s home country for a safer life can entail a long-lasting inner conflict. In this story the Uyghur author Aziz Isa Elkun depicts the everyday consequences of a life in exile: phone calls from the family leading to immediate police’ visits in the home, generations that have been torn apart, and the quiet peaceful life in London that so contrasts the life he left behind.
On a bright midsummer morning when you take your little girl’s hand and walk to school listening to the birds singing along the narrow footpath, you feel thankful to life and that today will be one of your best days, full of enjoyment just like any other day that you have hastily left behind you.
At that moment I was feeling happy, walking with my daughter, holding her hand and telling her funny stories about nature. In our magical imagination, my little girl and I turned into sparrows and flew singing among the birds on top of the big oak tree. From our home to school, we walk along three different tree covered narrow pavements, we need to cross several small roads and it takes us fifteen minutes to walk.
Sometimes it's quite difficult for us to pass people on the narrow pavement. Sometimes our way is blocked by young mothers with double buggies and tearful toddlers. We are lucky today; we meet a lady and her little girl whom I’ve known for several years. Her daughter is in my daughter's class, and we often meet in the playground or at our children’s activities outside school. Her name is Lucie. She is French, from Nice, and she moved to London a few years ago.
As we approached Lucie that morning, she was speaking quite loudly into her mobile, and I could see an elderly lady on the screen of her phone. I assumed she was speaking to her mother in Nice. Although we usually greeted each other when we met, this time I hesitated to say hello so as not to interrupt her phone call. However, I also worried that if I passed her without greeting it might look unfriendly. So I said “Good morning” but softly, and she replied in the same way with a nice smile on her face. She paused the call and said, “Sorry, I was talking to my mum. Today was her eightieth birthday”. “Wow!” I said, “Today is a very special day for your family. Please send our birthday wishes to your mum. How lucky you are to be able to speak to you mother through a video call. I’m jealous!" I spoke with a smile and we walked past her and on down the road.
We left Lucie behind us, walked on for about 100 meters and came to a crossing where we patiently waited for a gap in the busy stream of morning traffic. I realised that Lucie had caught up with us and joined us by the edge of the road. “I’m sorry I couldn’t speak to you earlier, I was talking to my mum. But you said something I couldn’t hear properly”. As soon as she spoke these words, there was a gap in the traffic, and holding our children's hands, looking both ways along the road, we quickly crossed.
“If I didn’t mishear, did you actually say how lucky I was to be able to make a telephone call to my parents? I’m not sure what you meant. It sounded like you can't call your parents. Is it too expensive?”
I felt frustrated by her questions; I needed to find an easy way to explain why I was unable to call my parents to a lady who grew up in the soft cradle of a European democracy with its indulgence of human rights. I was sure she would not have much understanding of “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics”, “Ethnic Splits” and the “War on Terror” that now dominated life in my homeland of East Turkistan, also known as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China.
No Lucie, it’s not that simple. Usually when I call my parents, it’s cheaper than your call to France. But I haven't spoken to my parents for several months, even though my father is unwell, and I stopped calling my other relatives and friends several years ago. It’s like this. A few months ago I called my mother, and when she answered the phone she asked me not call her any more, at least for a while, because every time I called her from London, about an hour later a group of policemen would come to their house. The police told my mother not to answer her son’s calls. They said there was an order from the regional police department that nobody should take international telephone calls. The police told my mother that if she didn’t obey this rule she would be punished.”
Lucie was looking confused. I felt bad, but now I’d started my story, I felt I had to go on.
“You probably can’t quite believe what I’ve just told you”, I said, “And you may ask me how such a thing is possible in our modern days. But this is just a drop in the ocean of troubles of the Uyghur people. These troubles began when we became a so-called ‘ethnic minority’ of the Peoples Republic of China. In many ways we are just like Tibet. We live under colonial rule. I was born and grew up in that land before I arrived in the UK as a political refugee ...”.I stopped there, sensing that I had maybe spoken too much and bored Lucie with my long story.
“Sorry Lucie, I’ve spoken for too long”, I told her, feeling a bit tense.
“Not at all”, she said, “It sounds terrible. Thank you for sharing your troubles with me”, but we had already reached the school gate. “Have a nice day! ” she said warmly, and went through the gate and inside the playground pushing her buggy. I went towards to my daughter’s classroom. After letting her run into her class, I left the schoolyard.
On my way home, I suddenly felt tired. My feet had trodden this pavement from home to school and from school to home countless times over the last six years. During these years, so many things had happened in my life. I dealt continuously with the conflict between my new life in London and the one I had left behind.In the last few weeks, especially after my father' s illness had got worse, the last telephone conversation with my parents kept echoing into my head.
“Hello! Essalam aleykum! How are you mum? Are you doing well? How’s my dad, is he able to walk now? How are the neighbours?”
My mother has seen a lot in her 76 years. She witnessed famine in her early teens during the war to support North Korea against American imperialism. She saw many other revolutions and campaigns: the “Great Leap Forward” of the late 1950s when we were supposed to overtake capitalist England in steel production, and Mao's great Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. One of best things that happened to my mother was that she learned to read, and graduated from secondary school. I was born right in the middle of the Cultural Revolution. A few years later my brother was stillborn. I learned when I got older that he died because my mum couldn’t get the medicine and food she needed. So I became an only child. Now my mother is getting older, she has fading memories of her life. She told me once that during the years of the Commune, she suffered a lot after a mule cart accident. She was in the Commune’s fields sticking portraits of Chairman Mao around the edge of the field. A military jeep came rushing along the road beside the field blowing up a storm of dust. The mule became agitated, and the cart turned over into a stream. She was trapped under the cart, and her backbone was fractured. She couldn’t get proper treatment for it at the time, and much later, in the early 1990s her back problems got worse, and she couldn’t walk. After borrowing a lot of money from the bank she had several operations, and now she lives with a 10cm long steel rod inside her to support her back.
I could hear her voice coming down the phone with a strong buzz and echo in the background. “My son, we’re fine. Don't worry about your father. He is eating well but recently he’s taken to his bed. He can't walk now, but I’m giving him his medicine. .... My dear son, this is going to be very difficult for you. If I don't tell you this, we will be in trouble, but if I do tell you, I know you’ll be very sad, but I have to tell you. Please can you stop calling us for a while? Over the last few weeks, whenever you call us, within an hour two or three policemen come to our home. They first ask about the content of our conversation on the phone, then they say I must stop speaking to you. Now they’re saying I shouldn’t answer your phone calls. It’s more than two years now since the township police asked me to report to them each time I received a telephone call from you. I kept telling the police about your telephone calls but now this seems not to be enough.
“My dear son, over the many years since you left home, I have learned many useful lessons. Now I am learning how to be content in this situation. Every place in the world is given to us by God. The place where you live now is also God-given.I am happy for you. You are safe there and you have beautiful children and a family. If I know you are living peacefully with your family, I won’t worry about you. God bless you ...”.My mother's voice down the phone gradually faded and I could only hear the sound of tears and heavy emotional breathing.After hearing a “du ... du ... du” signal, I assumed my mum had put the telephone down. It was a Saturday, just a week before the end of Ramadan in 2017.
I passed a long and anxious week after that call. On the following Saturday I called my parents’ number, but there was no answer. Then I tried my mum's mobile, but the result was the same: no answer. I listened to a Chinese language Red Jing ju opera song coming from her mobile for a while, then the mobile signal slowly died away. It was pretty clear: my mother was obeying orders and had deliberately left my call unanswered.
I arrived in this great city of London when I was nearly thirty years old. At that time, I was an ambitious young man full of optimism and hope for the future. I wanted to defend and campaign for the rights of the Uyghur people. I expected that the situation of the Uyghurs would change for the better, but year after year I only saw worse things happening to my people. What could I do for my people to improve their rights? Nothing. And now I had become so powerless that I couldn’t even protect my own right to speak to my parents, and had no idea whether they were alive or dead.
That evening over dinner my oldest daughter started to tell us about what had happened at school that day. She had just started secondary school that year. “Dad, I have some good news to tell you”, she said. “In our geography lesson we had a new teacher. He asked us to tell everyone which country our parents originally came from, and then describe its landscape and climate. I began to get worried when my turn was coming up. I thought if I say my dad is from ‘East Turkistan’ and if my teacher has never heard of it I might get embarrassed in front of my friends. But I knew I can’t say my dad comes from China. When my turn came, I told the class that my dad was from East Turkistan, and it’s a country that doesn’t have independence. I told them it’s north of Tibet, east of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, and that it’s in northwest China. It has mountains and deserts, and it’s seven times bigger than the UK”. She went on, “And I was so lucky! Our teacher shook my hand and he said, ‘I have never met anyone from East Turkistan before. A pleasure to meet you!’ Now I won’t have to worry about explaining to my friends where my dad comes from".
I told my daughter, “My clever girl, your daddy is proud of you. You know that your daddy can't live without his past. It is his identity; it is his everything. East Turkistan is an occupied country that belongs to you father, and his children and grandchildren”. I couldn’t hide my emotion as I finished my words, and I hugged my daughter tight.